Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles In Cairo, a muezzin calls faithful Muslims to prayer. It's the same call that sounds five times a day, every day, in cities across the world. Nearly a quarter of the people on earth respond to it, 'God is most great' the muezzin calls. 'I testify there is no other god but God.' 'I testify Muhammad is the messenger of God. 'Come and pray. Come and flourish. 'God is most great. 'There is no god but God.' In the unfolding of history, Islamic civilisation has been one of humanity's grandest achievements. A worldwide power founded simply on faith. A spiritual revolution that would shape the nations of three continets and launch an empire. For the West, much of the history of Islam has been obscured behind a veil of fear and misunderstanding. Yet Islam's hidden history is deeply, and surprisingly, interwoven with Western civilisation. It was Muslim scholars who reclaimed the ancient wisdom of Greeks. While Europe languished in the Dark Ages. It was they who sowed the seeds of the Renaissance, 600 years before the birth of Leonardo da Vinci. From the way we heal the sick... to the numerals we use for counting... cultures across the globe have been shaped by Islamic civilisation. But all this, began with the life of a single, ordinary man, and the profound message he proclaimed would change the world forever. His name was Muhammad. To Muslims, the life of Muhammad is a story revered. In its mysteries as much as its certainties, there are beliefs held sacred. Whatever we can tell about the Prophet, of course, is screened through the filter of what has been preserved over the centuries and what people have wanted to preserve. It's very difficult to pull out, from all these different sources that are very adoring, the ordinary human being... We do know that Muhammad was born in or around 570 AD in the sun-blasted Arabian peninsula. A land of savage scarcity whose Bedouin tribes were locked in a constant state of tribal war. While still an infant, Muhammad's parents gave him his first taste of life in the desert. Muhammad was from a town, Mecca, but he was sent off to live with the Bedouin because the peopl lived in the town of Mecca felt that the Bedouin were the holders of the deeper cultural Arab values. And the Bedouin view the towns people as having lost their really authentic roots in Arab culture and the poetry and animal husbandry and all the things that they do so well. By the time Muhammad was six, both of his parents had died and he was taken under the protection of his uncle, chief of his clan. Being an outsider gave him a singular perspective. He'd been orphaned early and developed very early on a passionate sense of concern for those who are left out of society. To be orphaned in a tribal society where clan and family relationships are your keys to everything... success, status, honour, dignity... is to face what it really feels like to be marginalised. That obviously had a very deep impression on him as a young man. In some ways, it was detrimental, of course, to grow up without parents. But in other ways he was so adaptable. He had many parents. He had many fathers. He had many mothers. So it made him a child of everybody. Muhammad's clan, like Arabs all across the Arabian peninsula, would share the stories that had been told and retold for generations. Pre Islamic Arabian civilisation was largely an oral culture and there was tremendous respect and admiration for people who could express themselves orally, especially those who could recite poetry almost at the drop of a hat. Some of the most important people in a tribe were the poets. They sang of the glory of the tribe. They told the story of the tribe. To the Bedouin, the word had a mystical importance. Poets linked the tribe to its ancestors and celebrated values older than memory. Poetry was the sinew that bound the Bedouin together, celebrating their victories, lamenting their defeats. The poems themselves, like the poems of Homer, both celebrate this great heroic ethos and yet intimate, in the deepest way, the tragedy that, um... this war... this ethos of constant tribal warfare brings to people. Warfare and conflict were the grim realities of a dangerous time. Muhammad's uncle taught him the skills he'd need to survive in a world where even a prophet would wield a bow and arrow. In a wilderness punished by the elements and bereft of water, rivalry over a single well could provoke a blood feud for generations. A real rivalry. Real battles, and sometimes quite bloody. So the allegiance of individuals was to the family, immidiately, and, a larger extent, to the tribe. Without the tribe's protection, no one could endure. Scattered across the peninsula were countless factions, all embroiled in bitter struggles, each defending its precious grazing lands, trade routes and most importantly, its wells. You have to understand that most of the lands are dry. So, water is something that everyone always considers precious. For those of us in climates that are more heavily watered it's difficult to understand the depth and the centrality of the symbol of water in societies that are desert and in which it only rains once or twice a year and in which a little water makes the difference between life and death. Each clan had its own separate gods and totems. To water and wind, fire and night. They were kept in the caravan town of Mecca, in a shrine of wood, stone and cloth. It was called the Kaaba, the Arabic word for 'cube'. Pre Islamic Arabs worshipped a number of spirits. They were generally nature-oriented spirits sometimes associated with natural features. Like trees or rocks or springs. And the Kaaba in Mecca was one of a number of these sanctuaries centred around a particular cluster of deities. It was said the Hebrew patriarch Abraham himself built the Kaaba centuries before and that a sacred black stone it held within had fallen from the sky. In these turbulent times, the Kaaba provided a rare place of peace. Only here would the Bedouin submit to a temporary truce before returning to their conflicts of the open sands. There was this one place in the middle, around the Kaaba, which was, from even pre Islamic times, a place of... a sacred enclosure where all people had to put down their arms. This, of course, facilitated trading because it meant that you couldn't carry on your feuds, when you were doing your buying and selling The spiritual and economic importance of the Kaaba and Mecca are pretty hard to seperate as far as the pre-Islamic Arabs are concerned. The Kaaba made Mecca a vibrant centre for trade. Here were found Arabian incense, exotic perfumes and Indian spices, Chinese silks and Egyptian linens. But perhaps the greatest treasure to be found at Mecca was the rich mixture of cultures. They were people who came through town who had all kinds of interesting experiences to relate of faraway places. The local religion was mixed. There were Christians, there were Jews. There were also the Arabs of the desert who followed an animist type of religion. Muhammad's world was a centre of trade, connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean, linking the ageing empires of Byzantium and Persia to the great bazaars of India and China. Muhammad became a merchant. In fact, he had a great flair for trade. At the age of 25, while leading a caravan northward to Syria, his talents caught the eye of the shipment's owner, a wealth widow named Khadijah. She was so taken with Muhammad, she proposed marriage. Ah, Khadijah. Well, I think she was a mentor as well as a wife. A very strong lady who had her own business and Muhammad was helping her out. So, it was a wonderful partnership and I'm sure he learned a lot from her. He had a tremendous amount of contact with merchants coming from different parts of the world, passing through the Arabian peninsula. I think he was a very intelligent man, very open minded, and he was able to communicate with a great variety of people. He must have had great charisma as well. Muhammad had a way with people, and with resolving their disputes. Once, when the Kaaba fell into disrepair, the clan chieftains quarrelled over who would have the honour of putting the sacred black stone back where it belonged. Before violence could erupt, Muhammad proposed an equitable solution. United in the effort, the four leaders shared the weight... and the honour. In gratitude, they invited Muhammad himself to replace the secret stone. He became known as Al Amin, 'The Trusted One'. There are all kinds of indications that he was tremendously interested in religious questions. This is obviously not something that an ordinary person probably was interested in in those days. He talked to... sages, Arab sages. He talked to Jewish and Christian sages who lived in the area.